Let’s get right into it.
Everything being reported about this Hot Stove season in Major League Baseball is founded on a false narrative. It’s, if one can excuse the modern cliché, fake news.
First a summary.
Agents and players are up in arms because this year’s crop of Free Agents have not signed yet. It’s not just being reported by Sports Illustrated or ESPN. It’s being picked up by everybody. The LA Times. The New York Times. The Washington Post. The Houston Chronicle. Even Time Magazine’s #8 most influential web site of all time, Drudge Report.
The commonly-reported story is based around the slow pace of free agent signings this offseason. Here we are, two weeks away from pitchers and catchers reporting, and six of MLB.com’s Top 10 free agents remain unsigned.
Misuse of revenue sharing funds, say the Players Association.
The Hardball Times is pinning the cause, at least partially, on the MLBPA’s long standing indifference towards international amateurs. (This is a great read, by the way)
I’m a simple man, and I like simple tidy solutions.
The real cause of the slow free agent market is simple:
This year’s crop of free agents stink.
I already had a hunch that this year’s slow class was rooted in the high asking prices by agents for players who are flawed. So I sat down this morning to research it.
I looked at the previous two seasons’ Top 10 free agents, as listed by MLB.com, the money they earned in free agency, and their average WAR for the last three seasons.
It’s a simplistic approach, with a few nuances intentionally ignored, such as the difference in relative value between pitcher WAR and batter WAR (1 WAR for a pitcher is more valuable than 1 WAR of a batter because average pitcher WAR is a bit lower than batter WAR. But this difference doesn’t materially affect my conclusions.)
Prior to the 2016 season, MLB.com’s top 10 free agents were:
- Zack Greinke
- David Price
- Yoenis Cespedes
- Chris Davis
- Jordan Zimmermann
- Justin Upton
- Jason Heyward
- Johnny Cueto
- Jeff Samardzija
- Alex Gordon
All together, those players earned $1,351,500,000, with an average annual salary of $23,728,333.33 (that 33 cents is important.)
Those players’ average WAR for the prior three seasons before hitting Free Agency was 4.2.
Prior to the 2017, season, MLB.com’s top 10 free agents were:
- Justin Turner
- Yoenis Cespedes (again)
- Edwin Encarnacion
- Dexter Fowler
- Josh Reddick
- Ian Desmond
- Wilson Ramos
- Neil Walker
- Aroldis Chapman
- Luis Valbuena
This batch earned $572,200,000. The disparity in cost compared to the previous year was because nobody in 2017 received longer than a 5-year deal, whearas prior to 2016, five players received deals of six years or more. A better barometer is the annual average of $15,665,000 received by the Top 10 2017 free agents.
The large drop in annual salary can be ascribed to the collective 3.1 average WAR, a full 1 WAR lower than the previous class, which was particularly strong.
This offseason, MLB.com lists the following players as the top 10 free agents:
- Yu Darvish
- Jake Arrieta
- Mike Moustakas
- Wade Davis
- Eric Hosmer
- J.D. Martinez
- Jay Bruce
- Lorenzo Cain
- Lance Lynn
- Zack Cozart
Sorry, Mr. Boras. This is just not the same.
The average WAR of this crowd is 2.6, a full 1.5 WAR lower than the bumper crop of great free agents signed before 2016, and a full half-win lower than 2017.
And yet, so far, the average annual salary of the four of these players signed is $14,750,000, less than a million less than 2017.
That by itself casts doubt on the idea that teams are willing to pay less for free agents suddenly, especially considering that five of MLB’s top six players have not signed yet.
Nail in that coffin, agents and player association.
Looking further, this free agent class is even more flawed. Two of these players, Darvish and Lynn, missed the entirety of a whole season during the past three seasons; extreme injury risk will make clubs more cautious. By MLB Trade Rumors, Darvish is projected for six years, $160M. While this isn’t in “Greinke and Price” territory, it would still make him one of the top paid players in the game.
And the hitters are uninspiring. Bruce is a poor defensive Right Fielder who can’t come close to the league average in OBP, which limits his value as a power-only slugger, as evidenced by his average WAR of barely over 1 for the last three years. J.D. Martinez is even worse in the field, but is a far better hitter. With a history of knee troubles. Martinez is projected at six years, $150 million and Bruce at three years, $39 million...which is exactly what he received.
Moustakas was one of the worst defensive third basemen in baseball last season and is coming off the first really impressive offensive season of his career...and still only managed 2.2 WAR.
Zack Cozart is coming off of the only quality season of his career, and folks should be rightly skeptical of its repeatability after five straight years of mediocre to below-average play.
One can surmise that agents and players ask for more than they eventually sign for, by the way, which lends credence to MLB’s implication that agents and demands are the cause of this slow offseason.
It’s easy (and typical) for agents and players to complain about revenue sharing, collusion, and the luxury tax threshold being a de facto salary cap. But MLB clubs want to field the best team that they can. They don’t have an incentive to NOT sign free agents. They do have the right, and in fact the responsibility to their ownership teams, to not grossly over spend on players who are not even close to worth their salaries.
Yes, there has been a better public understanding of the concept of future value, and that free agents frequently, or even usually, are not actually worth the contracts that they receive. They are the least efficient way to improve a baseball club, from a business standpoint. But they are the quickest way to supplement a strong core and turn a team into a contender, as the 2017 Astros proved in part last season. As such, Free Agency is a valid and important part of the team building process.
But the false narrative is in the idea that clubs are suddenly colluding to drive down free agent prices just because they don’t want to spend, or because the market is materially changing. There’s just not conclusive evidence that either is the case—only speculation.
As fun as it is to concoct or believe in conspiracy theories about billionaires colluding to not hand out $200 million contracts, there’s just no strong reason to believe in it. The only folks touting that viewpoint are the agents and players who stand most to gain by the outrage generated by such stories. Conflict of interest, much?
What is as clear as day is that this is not a good free agent class.
That is the simplest and most easily defensible explanation for why clubs are dragging their feet in meeting agent demands.